'What did we do?' Families anxious about chemicals found in tap water

Emergency response teams hand out bottled water to residents at Parchment High School.

Story highlights

  • The city of Parchment, Michigan, learned that its tap water had high levels of contaminants
  • Officials took immediate action, but residents are concerned about health
  • "Do I make small babies," one mom asks, "or do I make small babies because I drink poisoned water?"

(CNN)It's been about three weeks since Tammy Cooper last drank water from her tap. That's when she saw a warning on Facebook for residents of her small Western Michigan town to stop drinking the water.

In Michigan, water main breaks aren't unusual, although they're more common in winter. It didn't immediately strike Cooper as out of the ordinary to not be able to drink the water.
    But the Facebook message made no mention of the run-of-the-mill breaks or chloroform warnings; rather, the city's July 26 post said, "We have just been informed this afternoon by the [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] that the PFAS level in a City well is 1400 ppt. The limit being 70 ppt."
    It advised using bottled water for cooking, drinking and making baby formula.
    "I immediately felt really sick," Cooper said.
    PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of more than 4,000 synthetic chemicals that degrade very slowly, if at all, in the environment. Some of the best-known chemicals are PFOS, PFOA and GenX.
    It's not the first time Michigan has dealt with toxic tap water; the legacy of Flint is not far behind. But unlike in the Flint lead crisis, it's unknown how long the water in Parchment has been contaminated with PFAS.
    Now, all Cooper could see were toxins all over her house, poisoning her nearly 3-year-old daughter, Jillian, who has lived in Parchment most of her life.
    "You look around and you have sippy cups around," she said. Every cup of water -- in fact, anything using the water -- became suspect.

    A persistent problem

    The chemicals have been used for decades on military bases and in industrial areas in the manufacturing of thousands of consumer items including food packaging materials, water-resistant fabrics, nonstick cooking pans and firefighting foams.
    "They're extremely strong, and they are extremely persistent, and that's what makes them so good for nonstick, waterproof and stain-repellant products," said Tom Bruton, a scientist with the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, California.
    The chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States. In 2002, 3M, the primary US manufacturer of PFOS, voluntarily phased out production of the chemical. In 2006, eight major companies in the PFAS industry agreed to stop production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals by 2015.
    But they can still be found all around us, including in the water.
    "I think that people should be concerned about the amount of PFOA and PFOS that is in our environment," Susan M. Pinney, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati, wrote in an email. "These are chemicals with long half-lives," meaning they can persist in the environment as well as the body. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, they can stay in the body two to nine years.
    "Exposure in utero may have the greatest effect on developing children ... and effects may last into adulthood," Pinney said, adding that the research is early and so is not definitive.
    According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS exposure has been linked to low birth weight, immunological disorders, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
    And that is what exactly worries Cooper. She can't help but wonder whether the more than two years her family has lived in Parchment have been the root of their health issues.
    "You just start thinking, 'well, we were sick a lot,' " she said.

    Is it the water? Could it be breast milk?

    Cooper and her husband David prioritize healthy living: They buy organic food; they wash their hands often; they diligently use laundry detergent "free and clear" of unnecessary chemicals; she breastfed her daughter for nearly 3 years. So could there be a connection to the water? After all, her thyroid hormone levels went down after her pregnancy. "It causes all these questions," she said.
    Her biggest concern is Jillian. She was small, measuring in the 10th percentile for weight when they moved to Parchment when she was 6 months old. A year later, she had dropped below the 1st percentile in weight. After Cooper focused on feeding her a higher-fat and -protein diet, Jillian's weight is now in the 4th percentile.
    "Is it the water?" Cooper wonders. Could it have been her breast milk? "She's nursed the entire duration that we've lived here. Everything that I've read, if you're nursing a child, you're passing it on to them."
    PFOS and PFOA are found in blood and at lower levels in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health.